Barely-hidden fractures within the SDLP have opened wide after former leader Mark Durkan called for Alasdair McDonnell to stop double-jobbing and to step down as party leader.
Mr Durkan’s dramatic intervention into the struggling nationalist party’s internal debate about its leadership has created huge internal difficulties for Dr McDonnell.
In a televised interview with BBC programme The View on Thursday night, Mr Durkan spoke candidly about how Dr McDonnell’s poor leadership of the party had “came up again and again” on the doorsteps as SDLP members canvassed during the election.
The Foyle MP, a former aide to the party’s founder John Hume and a figure who is not known for plotting against colleagues, spoke bluntly about his leader.
Mr Durkan pointed to the fact that he had given up double-jobbing years ago and had stated at that point that the party could not be led from Westminster.
He said: “If Alasdair thinks that just resigning from the Assembly deals with the questions, it won’t because these questions will all surface again once he resigns from the Assembly and as we move towards an Assembly election. The questions won’t go away. Therefore if we’re going to be in a better position to fight an election, the leadership needs to change.”
He said that voters wanted to see the DUP and Sinn Fein challenged “in a competent, cogent – and passionate – way and I think that means that people want to see new leadership in the SDLP”.
He said a leadership contest would be “invigorating” for the party.
And, pointing to his own record, he added: “I’m not saying anything about anybody that doesn’t conform with decisions that I made about myself. I’m addressing those issues as fairly to a colleague as I did to myself.”
When asked for his view on the situation, former deputy leader Patsy McGlone – who challenged Margaret Ritchie for the leadership in 2011 – yesterday said that he was “not getting into it at all”.
But South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney stoutly defended his leader.
He said that Dr McDonnell was obliged to give up his Assembly seat “by virtue of a rule change at Westminster” and added: “Alasdair was elected on a very narrow agenda, which was the renewal of the SDLP and the modernising of it.
“He will not let a rule change from Westminster dictate that agenda. He still is on his mission to renew. He did very well in the council elections last year; we put 40 per cent new councillors in...”
He said that the party “did very well in the election just gone – yes there were pockets where things were not just as good but overall it did very well”.